Poet and essayist Ross Gay on why you don’t need to be an optimist to incite joy

Ross Gay reads a book while standing at a podium.
Poet and essayist Ross Gay kicked off the Humanities Studio’s 2023-2024 “Joy” Speakers Series at Pomona College’s Rose Hills Theater on Sept. 14. Courtesy: Gretchen Rognlien

Poet and essayist Ross Gay kicked off the Humanities Studio’s 2023-2024 “Joy” Speakers Series at Pomona College’s Rose Hills Theater on Sept. 14 with a reading of  “Inciting Joy,” a collection of essays described by U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón as “a book that will break your heart.”

“There’s so much suggesting that we’re not connected, whether it be you and me, us to the trees, or the soil, or the air, or the light,” Gay said. “The more I sort of realized the depths of joy, the more I sort of felt like, ‘Oh, this is just something that I’m always going to be interested in.’”

Gay covers these ideas throughout “Inciting Joy,” in which he proposes readers see joy not as the absence of sorrow, rage or grief, but as something that inherently coexists with these emotions. 

Gay tries to maintain curiosity over his affective states as he writes through that emotional complexity.

“It’s less of an exploration than it is a kind of inquiry,” Gay said.

In his book, Gay considers what kind of joy we incite when we care for each other. 

“I’m way more curious to know how we get together to take care of each other than I am to know how we get together to fuck each other up,” Gay said.

This sense of care manifested when Gay spotted hesitant latecomers and invited them to sit. He noted audience members’ reactions. 

“When there’s a seat open, we all know to raise our hands and be like ‘you can sit here,’” Gay said. “That’s a nice thing.”

Particularly striking was how Gay subverted the typical hierarchical author Q&A. When Eileen Kim PO ’24 asked how one can, in the midst of day-to-day obligations, prioritize joy and explore their passions, Gay opened the question to the audience, making it a collective conversation. 

Talia Day PO ’27 took the opportunity to respond to Kim’s question.

“I’m wording this in a silly way, but just living is sometimes enough,” Day said. “You’ll find that when you’re living and just being yourself in the moment you’ll find things that you love to do.”

Amanda Eric PO ’25 shared similar thoughts placed in an institutional context.

“I just finished reading this book called ‘Rest as Resistance’ by Tricia Hersey,” Eric said. “She has an amazing collective called the Nap Ministry and [within the book] she explores this idea of rest, specifically for Black women, trying to find ways of dreaming about possibilities that are beyond capitalism.”

She connected this to her reaction to Gay’s essay “Went Free,” which he had read earlier. In it, Gay describes his friend Patrick’s account of a night of dancing. When a particular song started playing, Patrick felt a collective feeling of release –  “WE WENT FREE,” he described. 

The phrase “WE WENT FREE” also acted as a door into Gay’s curiosity: What does it mean to collectively arrive at freedom?

Eric expressed how she felt the most free when she was able to imagine “other ways to move or exist throughout the world,” be that through dancing or resting.

Gay posed a question in response to Eric.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if there were accountability teams for resting or for playing?” he said.

In other words, what if we created a culture, within our own communities, that prioritized joy?

“Just living is sometimes enough. You’ll find that when you’re living and just being yourself in the moment you’ll find things that you love to do.”

Kim, upon listening to other students offer knowledge based on their lived experiences,  described the initial guilt she felt about “wasting time,” especially as someone who grew up in an immigrant household where the expectation was to “always be working.”  

“I’m a senior in college, you know, and I feel like I’m still having a tough time. But I think after hearing everyone’s answers, I feel a little bit …more secure in the fact that everyone else kind of …feels this way,” she said.

The sense of community in motion was palpable. As people all around the room shared their thoughts, the nearly 200 audience members swiveled their bodies to face each other, and the stage and podium Gay stood at seemed to disappear.

stef torrabla, a visiting instructor of English at Pomona, was inspired by Gay’s method of facilitation. 

“Educators…can create and hold space for others to invite everyone into a conversation, but in a way that doesn’t ask students to perform ‘mastery,’” they said.

When the event ended, the audience was still fully engaged. Elizabeth Tulac, a former teacher at the Mary B. Eyre Children’s School, shouted out how as a self-proclaimed “old person,” finding joy takes time.

“All those annoying senior citizens, they’ve found it, so if you don’t find it today, you’ll find it one of these days,” Tulac said.

Tulac described how part of that requires resisting the commodification of joy. When her grandchildren are playing, she’s eager to pull out her phone and press record, but sometimes “you miss the moment because you [are] trying to capture it.”

Gay expressed how he also tries to resist the commodification of pain.

“None of us has a dearth of heartbreak,” Gay said. “We’re all heartbroken. But there is something very… damaging to be compelled to perform the heartbreak. People who love you aren’t gonna make you perform heartbreak.”

When Sinqi Chapman PO ’27 asked about the significance of hope and joy in imagining a future, Gay described his complicated relationship with “hope.”

“Some people will often say [my] work is so hopeful, or it’s optimistic,” Gay said. “To be honest, I don’t feel optimistic at all. Nor do I feel pessimistic,” he said. “But I spend time describing the ways that we’re capable of caring for one another and making each other possible … I want to not only be able to know it and celebrate it, articulate it, share it, but I want to be able to contribute to it, to some extent.”

It’s as if joy isn’t inherently optimistic or hopeful, but rather signifies that we’re alive, that we’re in an intimate relationship with the world.

“It’s like noticing that the trees make it possible for us to breathe,” Gay said. “I’m describing a thing that is true. Now, it will be true tomorrow.”

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